Imagery, Visualization, and Performance

Trolltunga in Norway

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Imagery and Visualization

Imagery and visualization are important mental tools often used by athletes.. The two terms are often used interchangeably despite their slightly different definitions.  Visualization is more about having mental images or pictures. Imagery is considered a mental process that can involve all five senses. In particular, athletes might utilize kinesthetic imagery by imagining the feeling of a particular movement. For example, a golfer would create a guided mental imagery of  through swing and feel the motion rather than see a static mental image of it. The imagery might also include the sound of the club hitting the ball (auditory imagery) and the vibration feeling in his hand with the club and ball connect (tactile imagery).  Imagery such as this is much more active and quite different than simply seeing a mental picture. Thus, an athlete can be more of an observer of the imagery or more “in” the image. When the athlete actually feels the sensations and is not merely observing this is known as internal imagery.  This type of imagery has been associated with high performing athletes.

Imagery in Sport

Morris, Spittle, and Watt authored a book, Imagery in Sport:
They provide a an excellent summary of the different ways athletes can use mental imagery in sport. These include:

  • Imagining playing at the peak of one’s game
  • Mentally rehearsing a routine before a competition
  • Using imagery to review skills when injured
  • Imagining feeling confident
  • Relaxation using mental scenes

Training and Performing

Technology and brain scanning equipment have helped us better understand why imagery can be such a powerful mental tool to add on to physical training. It seems that using mental imagery activates the parts of the brain associated with visual processing. This means if someone imagines shooting a free throw some of the same brain areas are activated as when the person is actually shooting the free throw. In this way, our brain is responding as if we are performing when doing mental imagery.  Knowing this means athletes who cannot get to a field or course can at least be using mental imagery as part of training. In addition, athletes who are injured may continue to at least rehearse skills at a mental level.

Recommendations for Mental Imagery

  1. Make a decision about the place to best practice mental imagery. Some people do it at home and away from practice. Some do it on the field, at the pool, or in the rink before or after the physical practice is done. All are effective.
  2. It is best to try to get into a relaxed state before doing mental rehearsal. This helps to go more deeply into the mental rehearsal.
  3. It might be best to close your eyes to enhance more concentration and relaxation. However, some athletes like to mentally rehearse at the site of competition with their eyes open, as if watching themselves perform.
  4. Choose a focus. It can be a technique you want to successfully execute or it might be the whole race or competition. For example, downhill skiers mentally rehearse skiing the entire course on which they will compete. They put themselves in the visualization feeling the curves and turns.
  5. You can even time the visualization if you have a short race and want to visualize as if you are competing.
  6. Have one or two words to help you center and stay focused.

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